One of the big claims of the Election Commission in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls was making voting booths disability-friendly with ramps and accessibility apps. But we need to go beyond just accessible voting. People with disabilities also want a voice in India’s Parliament.
There’s now a strong consensus emerging in India’s disability community that regardless of who wins and forms the next government, President Ram Nath Kovind must make one of his 12 Rajya Sabha nominees a person with disability. It is not going to be an easy battle.
It took more than a push for India’s disability rights movement to exhort Parliament to upgrade The Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995 to the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act (RPWD) 2016.
I am trying to remember a single day when disability was organically and seriously taken up in Parliament without an external push, even though the disability sector estimates that India has 70 million persons with disabilities.
Countries across the world are including persons with disabilities in governments because it’s important for someone to represent them.
Their voice needs to echo through the corridors of power and judiciary in order to be heard. And who better to be appointed than a person who understands what it’s like to live with a disability. Even a daily task becomes impossible for a person with disability due to lack of accessibility. And as if that is not hard enough, we are virtually absent from policymaking and governance too.
Time and again, we have noticed that electoral politics end up serving the elite or the people who can protest or form groups. One can easily understand why this is difficult for persons with disabilities. They cannot form groups or organise themselves because of India’s poor infrastructure. And the country’s transport systems certainly do not help.
This only further marginalises us, even after 70 years of India’s Independence.
This year was pitched as the “Year of Accessible Elections”. The Election Commission said it carried out a booth-wise mapping of persons with disability, made accessibility enhancements at booths, updated their websites to be accessibility-friendly and launched awareness campaigns. It also created an app through which the disabled can ask the EC for pick-up and drop service to the polling booth. But once again, it proved to be an idea on paper with sparse or no implementation whatsoever. Our optimistic REV-UP campaign to Register-Enable-Vote for persons with disabilities was dealt a severe blow when it was not followed up with the systems and processes designed to make change happen.
What the EC failed to understand was that accessibility is not merely about putting up an ill-fitted, hurriedly constructed ramp on the eve of election day. Accessibility has to be ensured across the board from procurement guidelines to monitoring to training people to understand the logic behind inclusive designs.
My biggest grievance is that in an endeavour to achieve half-hearted accessible elections, the organisers forgot basic human dignity. For instance, wheelchair users in Guwahati, where I voted, were told their booth was on the first floor of a building where there was no lift. This is simply unacceptable and one of the many reasons why a person with disability needs to be nominated to the Rajya Sabha. Only then can real change come about on the ground.
We need local champions inside Parliament who can lead change, who are personally vested in making things better. Nominating a person with disability to the Rajya Sabha will mark the beginning of the movement. This could very well herald India’s second wave of freedom movement – this time, for the rights of persons with disabilities. This is our appeal to the President of India.
The author is a disability rights activist currently heading the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People as Executive Director. Views are personal.